The Sisterhood and My Traveling Pants; or, LTYM 2014

Many people have asked me about my experience reading for Listen To Your Mother – Twin Cities. This is my answer. It is not short.

Side note: I wrote most of it before hearing that Maya Angelou died today, but as the Internet filled with quotations I found this one especially apt: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

The Preparation

I did not practice my piece out loud alone, ever. In fact, even before my audition the only time I read it aloud was on a bench outside the audition venue, where it was about 35 degrees. Why I bother to wear makeup when any exposure to the elements turns me a blotchy pink remains a mystery.

I rehearsed only at rehearsals, briefly wishing I had honed my delivery better before choosing to pat myself on the back for not overthinking it.

I didn’t even obsess about my clothes. For a while I entertained the idea of buying something new, but fortunately I remembered that shopping for new clothes is at least as likely to be depressing as it is to be fun. Better to stick with the familiar: simple top, black pants. I had not seen the black pants in a few months, but no matter, they would materialize eventually. Wash enough clothes, and slowly they would rise to the top of laundry heap. Put it out of my mind.

Until the day before, when I still could not find my pants. Suddenly my pants and their absence were no longer a sign of my devil-may-care insouciance. My pants became the emblem of my unpreparedness for this event, if not for life in general. My inability to rein in or track down a single pair of black cotton-rayon blend pants was starting to represent the folly of the whole enterprise: exposing myself, quite possibly revealing that the emperor has no clothes.

After the drama these pants caused on my Facebook wall for days, I wish this story had a hilariously poignant ending. In truth I found the pants hanging on a hook in the kids’ bathroom, under a Hogwarts robe of the same black shade, the morning of the show, and that was that. Soul-searching time is over. Time to put on the big-girl black pants and read.

All dressed and ready to go

All dressed and ready to go

The night

I’ve auditioned for a couple of things lately, which has given me a chance to come face to face with what a chicken I’ve become. As a young woman auditioning for a cappella groups in college, I was self-confident to (past) the point of obnoxious. When a group groaned and told me they were tired of “Happy Birthday”–the song they told me to audition with–I said “Give me an A” and launched into a full recitative and aria from the Messiah, and then I turned them down when they called back. (Look, I’m just trying to be real here. I know it’s bad. Besides, I had a spot in the better group.)

So I’ve been surprised by the bundle of nerves that springs up when I poke my turtle head out into the world again. I’m presented with brand new, untried hurdles. Instead of “deep breath, best foot forward,” my self-talk sounds more like “she’s better than me, and oh no she’s better than me too, and what was I thinking” and so on.

I had been through this in the rehearsal process already, but the huge response the audience gave each reader made it all fresh and loud again. “My story isn’t that funny.” “My story isn’t that meaningful.” “My writing isn’t that poetic.” “My story isn’t that relatable.” And then, magically, my self-talk changed, and it said “Really, what are the odds that your story, your writing, your delivery are all the worst, that you’re the one who’s going to bomb when everyone else is doing so well?”

And they were doing so well. Every single woman stepped up and delivered the best reading of her piece yet. I was genuinely thrilled for each one, and it was truly like magic to watch each writer grow a little more expressive, a little more emboldened, sometimes a little more sassy. Every audience reaction, to the funny or the sad, provoked a fist-pumping “Yes!” in my heart. Throughout this process, without my realizing it, I had become a fellow bearer of these women’s stories. Their success was my joy, regardless of my individual performance.

I was second to last to read–the last before our co-producer Tracy brought it to a close. There are not a lot of words to say about it. I don’t know how personal or profound my story sounded to the audience. I laid out there, as best I could, a description of a major life transformation for which motherhood acted as the primary catalyst. (Video to come.) Though I think it was mostly funny, it touched lightly on some of the most vulnerable parts of me. And in response, people laughed, and said “ohhh” and “awwww,” and then, at the end, 500+ people clapped and yelled and cheered. I have gotten criticism and praise for my writing and ideas for 40 years, and I have sung other people’s songs for audiences large and small. But being seen and heard and embraced by a live audience, well that engenders feelings I could not have anticipated and can’t quite describe.

The takeaway

That feeling, it’s a big takeaway, but it’s something I can’t even begin to share or even use, because I don’t know how. So here’s something a little more practical and immediate.

As people began to ask me what my experience was like, I wanted to recommend it to them. I told writer friends in cities with an LTYM, “you should do this!” But it didn’t take long to recall that I have really awesome friends who have stories (everyone has stories), but who aren’t writers. Some, no matter how smart and thoughtful, aren’t even all that great with the written word. Yet I wanted for them that same experience of being seen, and known, and appreciated.

I am not as good at that as I would like to be. I do not click “like” on Facebook unless I am really feeling some serious excitement. I am suspicious of exclamation points. In person, I sometimes do not say hello to an acquaintance because I assume they don’t care about hearing it from me. I am surprised how often I think I’ve said something out loud, but it turns out it lived only in my mind. There are many reasons for this: good, bad, unknowable, idiotic.

Nevertheless since my LTYM experience I am resolved to pay it forward, to push past my scruples or decorum or shyness and give out more totally gratuitous recognition of both close friends and acquaintances. Gratuitous, as in it costs me very little to call out “Hi Jen” instead of smiling and looking down, or to comment “thanks for sharing” when someone posts interesting news. Gratuitous, as in no one need do anything especially amazing to earn it. Who they are is enough.

This is the gift I received, thanks to the effort and support of many people, including LTYM founder Ann Imig, and our Twin Cities co-producers Galit Breen, Tracy Morrison, and Vikki Reich. It is a gift I can try to pass on with very little effort at all.

TL;DR:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

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Twenty (Three) Years Ago: Lollapalooza, Pre-Geek Chic, and Love

[The following is an encore presentation. This blog post was previously published elsewhere, but Throwback Thursday photos of a certain leather jacket made me pull it out again.]

Do you remember August 1991?

Twenty years ago I was going to the very first Lollapalooza concert in Chicago. I was working at the Minnesota Daily, and the two other night editors and I decided to go together.

Vocabulary digression: the night editors were the last of the editorial team to see the paper before one of us drove it—drove it!—over to the printer in the middle of the night. A large part of our job was to maintain the integrity of the actual text of the paper once it had gone “Prod Side” (out of the editorial office and into the production office, housed in a completely separate building) and was in the hands of the art directors, advertising people, and other folks who were more concerned with visual appeal than the accuracy of the 4th largest newspaper in Minnesota.

Everyone working on the paper was probably 25 or younger, which explains why it didn’t occur to anyone that if all the night editors left town for the weekend (when the paper didn’t run) and for some reason couldn’t come back by Sunday night, the paper would be in a bit of a pickle.

Luckily, although all of us were brilliant editors and students, none of us were especially wise, and off we three drove in my tiny bright blue Honda Civic hatchback, which had been dubbed The Indigo Chariot by my roommate.

My memories of the trip are hazy, but I have to laugh at the things I remember:

—Chicago Pizza

—Ice-T as a young rapper instead of old actor

—Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction: For most of their set there were 2 girls with no pants dancing lethargically next to Mr. Farrell, as if grinding with a rock star would be the most boring thing they would do all day. I think they did some things that were supposed to suggest they were Maybe Bisexual (ooooh! Edgy!). I remember looking at Perry Farrell and thinking that he looked just like a super-nerdy former high school loser (trust me, I know) who now had the fame and fortune to force models to gyrate next to him in public. It was kind of sad. I’m curious whether they’ve maintained that part of their act 20 years later.

—Living Colour, which I was really into at the time for some reason

—The cute nerdy editor who drove my car a lot of the way. He was a little younger than me, highly geeky, and scrawny in that way that made me feel—at 5’9”, with the hottest, perkiest body I would ever have—more like an older sister than a potential love interest. Still, had I not moved away, who knows? “Geek Chic” was not yet something any sane marketer had considered, but I was totally charmed by this pale, glasses-wearing boy who confessed at the age of 20 that he still liked dinosaurs. (Bitchy young me: “Really? I liked dinosaurs too. When I was FIVE.”) Last I saw he was a city editor for the Onion, so you can see my instincts on the whole “So Nerdy He’s Hot” thing were right on.

—Henry Rollins scolding the crowd for not clapping enough for the Butthole Surfers, who totally sucked.

—The repeated failure of my car to start.

See, you knew where this was headed. In the morning, as we left our hotel bright and early so we responsible young editors could be back in Minneapolis with hours to spare, my car would not start. My beautiful First Car Ever, for many years the only car used among my groups of friends, was dying.

Photographic proof

Photographic proof


We got it to a service station, and their brilliant advice was to drive drive drive drive without stopping, because once I stopped it would not start again without a jump from a kind stranger. So we did just that. We headed out of Chicago and into the prairie until it seemed we would absolutely have to stop for gas. We stopped for gas, made panicked calls to whatever Daily staffers we could find (cell phones? this was 1991, people, there were no cell phones for college students), got a jump, and rolled into Minneapolis just in time for the three of us to do our jobs for the Monday morning paper.

Because we were the very last editorial staff to see the paper, that issue has more than a few inside jokes tucked away referring to our predicament, including a little line art representing my poor hatchback, which needed a fair amount of work before I could drive it off to graduate school a couple weeks later.

Somewhere after midnight we all walked to one of the editor’s apartments and tried to crash there, but we were so wired we stayed up talking all night. I think the other female editor and I flirted aimlessly with Cute Editor Boy, all of us knowing full well that we were the kind of people who went to alt rock concerts and danced like fools, then went home alone to read classic novels and recover from too much smoke and crowd noise and write about it all later.

Sometime before sunrise we walked Editor Boy to his apartment, then went for pancakes. I probably only saw the two of them a handful of times before leaving Minneapolis; there was no point in further developing relationships that were about to end.

The Indigo Chariot was fixed and I drove it, along with my mother, and my step-father and grandfather following in a station wagon, to Ann Arbor. I cried as we drove away: I loved the city of Minneapolis, I loved the music and the theater and the lakes, and I was just starting to figure out, at the age of 21, that there were boys out there who actually kind of liked tall nerd girls. On the way to Michigan, I stopped at the last exit of the Upper Peninsula to call my housemates in my new digs. I lay on my back on the floor of my hotel room and laughed with surprise when a boy answered the phone and identified himself as Eggmaster.

I hadn’t told anyone when I would arrive, so I told Eggmaster that getting him on the phone was the biggest relief of my life, still laughing from exhaustion and now from nerves. “I’m so glad I could be part of the biggest release of your life,” he said, and I don’t know whether he misheard me or decided to mess with me.

I met him a the next day: horn-rimmed glasses, a thin white t-shirt, black motorcycle jacket, black combat boots, long and heavy black bangs covering one of his eyes. I soon saw that his bookcase was full of Poe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald; I learned that he was a drummer and he loved Rush. Geek Chic indeed, except he was in no way scrawny, and he was —hurray!—a full four inches taller than me. I did not learn his position on dinosaurs. Despite our breathless, giggly phone conversation, we hardly spoke to each other for three weeks, so intense was our shyness and introversion.

Nevertheless, Reader, I married him.

When I read online that today Lollapalooza was marking its 20th anniversary, the incredible sweetness of August 1991, which seems so long ago, came rushing back. Though I am right now listening to my twelve-year-old daughter practice her Bach inventions, I remember another bright young woman who was just waking up to the surprising possibilities life has to offer, amazed that she, too, might have a chance at love, joy, and just a little reckless abandon.

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I Hold the Mermaid’s Hand

I posted this three years ago on the Red Sea homeschool blog, and it is still true about my birthday girl. It’s also as sappy as ever, so if you hate that, look away. I’m not posting for you anyway — I’m posting it for my little mermaid

IMG_1772

No one believes that this girl can be any trouble. (Pictured here in a photo composed by her sister — I can’t remember the legend being enacted.) She goes off into the world and skips and sings and says wise-sounding things to adults. She is rarely found in the center of a knot of kids in trouble, but kids seem to like her all the same.

Then she comes home. Sometimes with wise-sounding words, but often with furious yells or tears, she tells me she doesn’t belong. No place quite fits right, sometimes even home. Some days something sets her off, some days she rolls out of bed already off kilter.

We went through something a bit similar with Violet at a similar age — “I’m tired of being the only one” she said about why she deliberately faked errors in her schoolwork, before homeschooling.

But with Victoria it runs deeper somehow, and the feelings are so much bigger and more intense. It’s not a school thing, it’s just a being thing, and in some ways it’s always been a part of who she is. There is only so much I can do. I can try to match the right phrase to the right time: “Different is wonderful,” “Different is no big deal,” “Everyone feels different,” “I feel different sometimes, too,” and “Different is hard.” Most of the time I have no idea what to do: she is different, and that is hard for her and for me.

Mostly all I can do is be there. Being there with a dreamer is complicated: you don’t know where she is, and half the time neither does she.

Which is why, God help me, this video clip just hit me right where I am living. It is cheesy, schmaltzy, hokey and — Lords of Irony forgive me — so true right now. So although I am slightly embarrassed, I have to share it for anyone else who has one of these dreamy little girls.

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Something for My Second Child

Just as most photo albums have more photos of the first-born than any other children, I suspect first-borns also get more words devoted to them. They have an unfair advantage–ask any younger sibling. First off, they’ve been alive longer, and usually they’re the ones who make childfree people into parents, which is kind of a big deal.

The next child makes for a transition that is a little harder to document. I’ve heard it said that the first child makes a parent, the second child makes a family. As my mom’s only child, allow me to say that this is crap.

However, going about your rounds with two kids in tow is quite different from being the young, hip couple who totes along an adorable baby in pristine, expensive mini couture wherever they want. The second child comes along and you are older, you’re more tired, and the hand-me-downs that survived are more stained. You enter into what we came to call The Fog of the Second Child, which took us a solid two years to get out of–and only then did we realize we had been in it. This is a time of life to get through, not a series of baby-bookable milestones.

I don’t know if there is a consistent personality profile for second-borns, but ours seemed determined to let us know that four years of parenting her sister were totally inadequate preparation for her:

  • She hated the baby swing and sling that her sister loved, and insisted on being carried at all times, approximately 20 hours a day for the first 9 months. Not held. Carried. In motion. On your feet. No sitting, no stopping.
  • She drove our family out of vegetarianism with a lust for animal flesh that was almost unseemly in a toddler. Whole Foods will be forever grateful, as we tried to assuage our guilt with the most humanely raised, most sustainable–most expensive–meat we could find.
I cannot guarantee the origins of this State Fair turkey leg

I cannot guarantee the origins of this State Fair turkey leg

  • She’s outgoing, which probably would have made my husband go in for DNA testing did she not look so much like his entire side of the family. She likes to go places and do things with people. And since she is not yet 16, that means I have to go places and do things with people too.
  • She loves clothes, make-up, and popular culture. My older child rode around listening to NPR for the first 10 years of her life, but little sister has a love affair with the radio stations that play the songs that make you say “Wait, he wants her to touch his what?”
The spa birthday party of a 10yo's dreams

The spa birthday party of a 10yo’s dreams

I could go on, but what I’m realizing as I make this list is that if Victoria threw us into a fog when she was born, she was also instrumental in bringing us, me, out into the world not long after that. She enjoys Tinkerbell, My Little Pony, and Taylor Swift without an ounce of worry about whether they are feminist, edgy, intellectual, or cool. She asks the neighbors about vacations and flowers that I didn’t even know they had. She remembers injuries and asks if they’re better, and she makes get well cards for her friends.

One of the hardest things for me to adapt to was her love of holidays and birthdays, things I can hardly remember, let alone plan for. Her birthday hovers around Mother’s Day each year, and as usual I am unprepared, while she has been making plans for months. She tells me about clothes, decorations, treats, and games, while I try to remind her that last year was a great big party–in celebration of turning double digits–and that we agreed at the time that we wouldn’t be able to repeat something so elaborate next year.

“I can still have streamers, right?” she says, “and maybe balloons?” She asks so little it is almost embarrassing that I sometimes struggle to provide it. But after eleven years she has taken us pretty far.

A few years ago I finally caught on that even the smallest recognition of Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Baby Squirrel Day (don’t ask), Pi Day, or my birthday would be enough to satisfy her, and that has made all the difference. If I don’t think of some small thing I’d like on Mother’s Day, she’ll be distressed no end, so I hold off on buying some fancy shampoo, knowing that a trip to the Aveda shop will indulge her love of cosmetics and perfumes as much as it will relieve her need to do something on a day that I’d be otherwise content to let slide by unnoticed.

I sympathize with my friends who have a hard time on Mother’s Day. Some had horrible, cruel mothers, some had wonderful mothers who died far too young. Some people just don’t like a fuss on any day, especially a fuss with them at the center.

In this house, however, we’ll mark the day at least a little. When I’m sniffing my Shampure and eating my strawberries, I will of course be grateful to my husband and my first born, without whom I would not be a mother. But I will reserve a little extra thankfulness this year for my second, whose love of the wider world is a continual source of surprise for me, and it is very nearly contagious.

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The Real Real World

I was a smart girl–a good student–when I was young, so many people told me I should grow up to be a doctor.

Healing is a noble and essential vocation, but it was not mine. I always loved words, and possibly more than words I loved ideas and feelings that seemed to elude words, to dance just outside the margins of what paper and pen could hold. Inside that little gap–just wide enough that you can almost reach across–there lies a sensation of stretching, yearning, glimpsing the unseeable that never fails to thrill me, even now.

Love, yearning, and thrills are the stuff of romance, but they aren’t the stuff of paying the bills. Chasing the trails of a fleeting insight across a notebook page or a computer screen is not a practical ambition. If anything, it’s the opposite of an ambition–an unbition, maybe.

This is likely why, while growing up, while pursuing my various degrees, I heard the phrase “Real World” an awful lot. Typically in a formulation like “There’s no call for ___________ in the Real World.” Or, “In the Real World, you won’t be able to ____________.”

I was playing the world’s most depressing game of Mad Libs, where it seemed everything I loved, everything I had any talent or passion for, was just a “verb ending in –ing” whose very proximity to the phrase “Real World” cued the sad trombone. WAH wah.

I mounted many ardent defenses of the relevance of “the humanities,” “the liberal arts,” and “the arts” as an indignant young musician, writer, and English major. I learned that music makes you better at math, that specialized vocational skills are a poor substitute for critical thinking skills, that classics is the best major to prepare you for a successful career in law, and I shared those facts widely and vehemently. I was too a part of the Real World.

Fifteen years ago, however, I caught a glimpse of something that changed my way of thinking entirely. And although it still runs away from my capacity to set it down on this virtual paper, today seemed like a good time to give it a go.

Fifteen years ago this week, I had a baby. Yes, yes, it was amazing and life changing and the heavens opened and the angels sang––but that’s not what I want to talk about now.

I worked as the mother of a newborn, starting back on a light schedule when she was just three weeks old. (What was I thinking?) I had cool academic work, but I also had a job summarizing employee feedback surveys for a very very large multinational corporation, from the janitors and cashiers all the way to the highest level executives.

Day after day, I sat on the floor next to my sweet and smiling infant, playing some Parents magazine compilation of classical music, reading about the Real World. I would nurse her and take tedious videos of her batting at a mobile and encourage her to say hi to the camera (I so regret having those moments of my parental idiocy recorded for the ages), and then take notes about what was happening in the Real World. I took her for long walks by the lake, I endured lengthy crying jags from post-partum depression, and I taught myself a hell of a lot about running a household, and then I wrote up summaries of what was happening in the Real World.

Let me tell you, the Real World was a dispiriting place where people followed a lot of pointless procedures and resented their superiors and almost as much as their underlings. The Real World also required a level of business jargon that nearly rendered the whole exercise meaningless.

Slowly, I started to get it. This baby, that lake, the pureed carrots, the horrible healthy first-birthday cake, the (once invisible to me) phalanx of helpers who carry women from pregnancy tests to lactation woes to sleep deprivation and beyond—so far beyond. This world is the real world. My world is real. Even more, the fear, the joy, the grief, the love–all of them so magnified in that first year of parenting–grappling with them, living with them, seemed like work more real than any I had done before. The intensity of that time fades, but the knowledge that the real world is happening right here and now persists.

This way to the magic.

This way to the magic.

While I still believe that things like writing, beauty, and imagination belong at the adult table of the alleged Real World, right there next to the hard sciences, business, and math (although, um, have you ever looked at what advanced mathematicians actually talk about?), proving it is no longer so urgent to me. We all have to spend time in that world, but we don’t have to acknowledge its claims to absolute authority.

Fifteen years ago, someone kindly pointed me down the path to the real real world. As she grows up and ponders her own impractical dreams, it is sometimes a struggle not to give some of that same bad advice, to remind her of the Real World waiting out there, so very close by now. But how ungrateful would that be?

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Listen to These Mothers

So I’m doing this thing that is not very like me. It involves:

1. Leaving the house
2. Meeting strangers
3. Telling a somewhat personal story in front of a very large group of strangers

This is the thing: It’s called Listen to Your Mother, and it is women talking about motherhood in all kinds of ways.

And if you are like me, when you first hear this idea you would be thinking “If I wanted to watch Hallmark Channel meets the O Network, I would get cable.”

Luckily I first heard of this idea last year, when two friends of mine, Kelly and Jeanne, participated in the show. Over the course of many weeks I got to see them talk and post and blog about their amazing experiences. (As it happened, due to some Standard Issue Catastrophe I didn’t get to see the actual show, though I have seen Kelly and Jeanne on YouTube.) Curiosity and longing for a similar peak moment overcame my initial skepticism, so I submitted a story, and auditioned, and now here I am, in the cast of the second year of Listen to Your Mother—Twin Cities.

The author, desperately seeking a decent headshot

I say I overcame my initial skepticism, but I must admit, while I trusted my friends’ glowing reports, I could not imagine exactly how the magic would work.

Tonight we had our first read-through as a group, and I will tell you, it works.

One woman tells a story, and you think, “Oh my gosh, that is an incredible story!” And then another woman tells a story, and you think, “Wow, that is fascinating.” And then the next woman tells a story, and you don’t want to cry, because you are not that kind of person, and yet there you are eyeing the Kleenex box because you can’t help but be moved by her experiences and her honesty and her hard-earned wisdom.

We’re arranged around the table in order of how we might read at the show, and looking around I could see that this is a solidly Twin Cities group of ladies. From the outside we do not look particularly diverse, and we look incredibly ordinary. But then people start talking, and suddenly this woman who looks like a hundred other women jogging the lakes or driving car pool tells a story of shattered expectations or profound loss. Suddenly, every ordinary woman is concealing fascinating, brave, funny, and uniquely true stories that belie our everyday appearance.

The first read-through made me so excited to get people to the show, so they can hear what I heard. It also made me look forward to getting to know these people (strangers!) who are carrying around amazing stories, to ask questions and be surprised all over again.

Even more, it made me want to go to the grocery store or the mall and just look at the women there, mothers or daughters or both, and simply recall that each of them has a story—many stories—that I will probably never hear. Not that I’ll go anytime soon, because that would entail leaving the house again. But I want to remember that feeling as long as I can, nonetheless.

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Who Are You Comparing Yourself To?

The polar vortex is striking again, and schools have been closed for two more days.

When talking to friends who have kids in school, it’s clear that, even for those who enjoyed a couple of extra days of holiday break, enough is enough.

Danny, don’t tell me they cancelled school again

I had to confess to some of them, eventually, that I was feeling some relief in hearing stories of screwed-up finals, AP classes falling behind, and a general anxiety about when all this missed stuff would get done. By comparison, our own challenges in getting back to a routine this month seem pretty tame, and it is certainly easier for us homeschoolers to make up “lost” time in the summer than it is for a whole school of teachers, staff and students. By comparison, we are doing OK.

Recently, I’ve also had several friends with kids in school talk about the struggle to get teachers to accommodate individual students’ needs—but not too much. Without giving away details—and without pretending to know what the right answer is—I was struck by the way teachers and parents use (and fail to use) not only IEPs and 504 plans, but also individual, informal exceptions to deadlines, time limits, even the amount of homework due. Some parents have been frustrated with a teacher’s unwillingness to follow the official, agreed-upon accommodations, but others have wondered aloud whether a teacher had gone too far in making an exception for their child, rather than providing an opportunity to learn from problems or mistakes.

I promise, I mostly listen to these stories with the intent of being a sounding board and source of support. But part of me, when I hear a similar tale repeated across several families, thinks, “so you have to deal with this in school too?”

As a homeschooler who has drifted among various levels of formal learning and child-led-ness over the years, I’ve never held an especially principled stand on the right amount of accommodation to allow a kid whose hormones, deficient attention, lack of interest, superabundance of interest, or something more serious causes them to deviate from a path we had previously agreed upon. It’s not hard to come across people who will tell you “I’d never make my kid . . .” or “I’d never let my kid get away with . . .” Probably it makes more sense to move back and forth between requiring compliance and letting things slide, even if that means getting it “wrong” sometimes.

But the fantasy that I could put my kids on the big yellow bus and make that someone else’s problem has appealed to me at certain times. More than one tempestuous afternoon has included a parent (possibly me) hissing behind closed doors to another parent (who kindly listens as though I weren’t a broken record) that these girls just need to go to school and learn to be responsible and accountable to someone, to meet deadlines and be punctual, to do their math sitting up in daytime clothes and stop Skyping between paragraphs.

What my friends’ stories about IEPs and unmonitored iPads are telling me is that school is not a magical place where kids snap to it, and no one there has quite figured out the best way to keep them off Tumblr during study times either. Yet again, by comparison, we’re doing fine—maybe not better, but no worse.

All of which led me to think: exactly who am I comparing us to, anyway? Where did I get this expectation of what “enough” should be?

When I started homeschooling, I had to work my way past comparing myself to all these wonderful Internet denizens. Maybe some of these will look familiar to you:

The unschooling family with their quirky, silly, pajamas-all-day photos on Facebook
The competitive family with kids excelling in several organized activities
The holy family and their never-ending supply of activities pegged to the liturgical calendar
The prodigious family, whose kids have started charities and small businesses before turning 12
The I-couldn’t-care-less family who can’t stop talking about how much they don’t know what their kids are doing

I’ve learned something from all of them, but none of them have cracked that secret code for “rightness.” (Trust me – I’ve met most of them in real life.)

The tricky bit is that it looks like I might have replaced them with an even more unattainable, ever-moving standard that is Totally. Made. Up.

So while I’m sorry for my friends who have struggled with closed schools and computer access, I have to thank them and the polar vortex for cluing me in. Choose your yardsticks carefully, use them sparingly, and crack them over your knee when they no longer serve you.

Now get inside and make some cocoa. You look cold.

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